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Opinions of Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Columnist: George Sydney Abugri

Probing the investigative reporter without a face

Opinion Opinion

Very few people have ever seen his face: He travels incognito and in his undercover operations, wears very strange and bizarre disguises.

His exact age is unknown but he is believed to be in his early or mid-forties. His gender is the subject of a joke among some Ghanaians who think he could be a female parading herself as a man!

Meet the Ghanaian journalist who is often the unwitting hero of his own stories. Even his name is as strange as his approach to investigative journalism.

An enigma
The BBC’s correspondent in Accra, Sammy Darko, sums up his profile this way: “Anas Aremeyaw Anas is something of an enigma, as he is never seen in public without a disguise.

His fans call him a modern-day folk hero or the ‘James Bond of journalism’, for his work in exposing alleged corruption and malpractice in Ghana and beyond.
“In his 15 years of undercover journalism, he has among other disguises, posed as a female investor in high heels, sunglasses and lipstick, and a janitor in a brothel. He has also secreted himself inside a fake rock placed at the side of the road with a peep hole for his eyes.” One photo has him roaming the streets as a lunatic.

Strange disguises
With his strange disguises, he has infiltrated a brothel patronized by minors, a foster home where children were routinely abused, a food factory which processed and sold contaminated food materials and a fitness and wellness club where Ghanaian girls gave foreign diplomats blow jobs!

When he visited Ghana, President Barack Obama had a good word for Anas for his work which exposed a human trafficking ring. I am yet to meet anyone who has not praised Anas for his efforts at exposing social ills.

During a two-year undercover operation, Anas and a team of collaborators from his private investigative company, “Tiger Eye PI” secretly recorded on video, 34 court judges and scores of judicial staff receiving money from the undercover investigators in order to acquit persons standing trial for various crimes including robbery, rape and murder.

Deafening applause
The administration of justice being such a very sensitive issue, his latest expose has won him such deafening applause from the public gallery, that it is almost impossible to get in a word of justified criticism about his methods.

Yet while most Ghanaians see him as a hero and do not take kindly to any attempts by dissenting voices to bring his approach to investigative journalism under scrutiny, his approach to journalism is considered by some to be unethical, immoral and in contravention of the law: Unethical because it employs entrapment, immoral because it involves deceiving and tempting people to commit wrongs that would not have occurred but for Anas, and unlawful because it amounts to the invasion of the privacy of individuals.

Deceptive methods
Deception happens when a journalist uses deceptive methods, such as the misrepresentation of the journalist’s true identity, the use of hidden cameras and recorders and entrapment of the subjects of an investigation.

Those who engage in unethical, criminal and other illegal behaviour will certainly often not cooperate with or be truthful with an investigative journalist. For this reason, it has been argued that in exceptional cases, deception may be used.

Deception is however generally thought to be justified in cases where there is a hidden threat to society. In such cases, the reporter should be able to show that society would have suffered a specific or particular harm, if deception had not been employed to expose the subjects of a string operation.

In the case of Anas, he has in his career as a journalist systematically and serially employed deception in the practice of investigative reporting. Deception is thought not to be justified where the journalist’s motivation is to win a journalism prize or ‘out scoop’ competition from other journalists and media.

In those special instances when deception may be employed, the investigative reporter must be free of obligation to any interest. In the case of Anas, he has in the past 15 years, produced a host of films exposing social ills, some of them in collaboration with versatile film maker, Clive Patterson and Aljazeera.

It is uncertain whether they are commercial products for making money and courting fame or unalloyed works of journalism: “Ghana’s madhouse”, “Ghana in the eyes of Ghana”, ‘how I helped bust Chinese sex trafficking ring”, ‘The presidents assignment {this film appears to confirm Anas’s collaboration with the government”, “The soul takers”, “Tiger Eye investigations at the DVLA”, “Africa investigates Nigeria’s fake doctors”, “How I named, shamed and jailed”, Ghana’s food for thought” and most recently, ‘Ghana in the eyes of God”, etc.

How much did it cost to make these and many more films? Who is paying the cost and why? They certainly have helped expose corruption and social ills, but can these films and videos really be said to be works of investigative journalism?

There is Anas the journalist who works or used to work as a reporter on the Crusading Guide newspaper. Then there is Anas who works for a private investigation company called Tiger Eye PI. Lumping Anas the private investigator and Anas the journalist together is giving the public and young journalists a distorted picture of investigative journalism.

Mr John Ndebugre, a lawyer representing some of the judges seen receiving money in the video, has described Anas as a “lawless” individual, his Tiger Eye PI company as a “secret society” and his team of undercover agents as “a cabal.” Mr Ndebugre has dared Anas to show his face to the public and stop wearing disguises and hoods if he is man enough.

The image Anas has created for the investigative journalist is that of a bogey on the constant prowl, perpetually snooping around with a hidden camera to expose people doing bad things. A taxi driver sighted in Anas’s trademark beeds-and-hat mask told reporters he hoped to give corrupt traffic police officers a big scare.

Some of the economic crimes and illegal activities of individuals and institutions which lead to losses of colossal sums of public money are of such a nature that it would be next to impracticable to try exposing them using secret filming and recording devices: Public service financial management is replete with cases of inflation of travel and hotel expenses, official payments to non-existent people, over-invoicing and under-invoicing in public supply and work contracts and similar criminal behaviour.

Exposing such illegal activities requires different investigative journalism skills based on vast reading, research, a good grounding in public sector accounting and financial procedures and contacts in high and sensitive places.

Methods of investigative reporting
Anas’s methods of investigative journalism comes with its frequent dangers: Two of the operatives Anas uses in his undercover video recordings, Ms Rukaya Musa and Ms Jennifer Anderson were caught secretly filming customs officials receiving bribe money at the Tema Port and were promptly arrested and placed in the police custody. They were later freed following the intervention of people in high-up places.
Another one of his audio and video recording reporters was recently kidnapped in the wake of the sting operation that facilitated the secret filming of judges accepting bribes offered to them, and rescued by police.

Since Anas works for a private security company while practicing journalism, it is critical to repeat the question: Are his activities work of journalism or the work of a private investigator?

If it is the work of a private company, is the company a non-profit-making one rendering philanthropic service to society or one that operates for profit? If it operates for profit, how is it benefiting from the exposure of social ills by the squander of so much time and other resources?

If it is work of journalism, then it would be unfair to suggest as Anas has constantly done, that the question of professional ethics does not arise and that those who talk of ethics are living in the past. To suggest that professionals in any field should be allowed to operate as they please is preposterous. If that were the case, doctors with their own independent and ‘revolutionary” approach to medical practice, might be permitted to perform illegal abortions or sleep with their patients.

What are journalism’s ethical standards?
Who defines journalism’s ethical standards? The ethics committees of national professional groupings of journalists, the press complaints commissions of countries around world and the time-tested guidelines for the practice of journalism.

A journalism professor was in the habit of reminding his students that investigative journalism is a public service, not an ego trip, that there are no stars in professional journalism and that being an investigative reporter does not confer on any journalist, a right to flout the profession’s ethical standards.

Whether Anas should, or can spend his working life hiding behind a mask as he done these years, remains to be seen.